World History/Ancient Greece and Alexander the Great

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Early history[edit]

Greece has been occupied for ten thousand years. The Greek archaeologist, Christos Tsountas (1857–1934) discovered a major Neolithic site at the modern day village of Sesklo in Thessaly (central Greece) which dates to the seventh millennium. The Sesklo site was occupied until 1500 BC. From the third millennium the Greek mainland was invaded by tribes of an Indo-European language speaking group who referred to themselves as Hellenes, which arrived in two separate waves and transformed the culture of the region. The first group formed the basis of the Mycenaean culture, which traded as far as Egypt and Lebanon/Syria and fought the Trojan War. The second group, which ultimately formed the Doric subgroup of Greeks, entered after the Trojan War, destroyed Mycenae, and started a dark age which ended with the efflorescence of Greek culture beginning around 600 BC. In early Greek history 'Greece' as we know it today did not exist. Instead, it was a collection of warring city-states (called poleis, singluar: polis) unified only by shared language, religion and culture. Two of the more important poleis were Athens and Sparta, speaking different dialects of Greek; Doric and Ionian, and having different cultural bases and histories. Ultimately, these differences expressed themselves as different forms of government. One afternoon as 12 year old Alexander, the prince of Macedonia, watched his father, King Phillip II, barter over a horse. It was a fine black stalion. After hopeless taming,the horse became his and he called him Bucephalus.

Courtesy of the United States Military Academy Department of History

Early Athens[edit]

The founding of Athens is not well documented. It is known that Dorians originally founded the town, a northern tribe that invaded Greece and later settled (introducing the horse). Therefore, Athens maintained a few tribal customs, such as the popular assembly (the basis of the later Athenian democracy). Early Athenian society boiled down into two classes: the peasants, and the rich 'Hippes'. The peasants would borrow grain from the Hippes to plant and pay it back out of their harvest. While all matters were settled through a vote, there were two assemblies: one in which everyone could participate, and one reserved for the Hippes. This gave the Hippes the majority of the political power in early Athens. The society continued in this manner until the Mediterranean slave trade reached Athens. Once this happened, the peasants began to use surplus wealth to buy slaves and use them to farm their land. The Hippes, fearing that the peasants could begin to rival their wealth, began to enslave peasants who were late in repaying their debts. This sparked a long and bloody civil war, which continued for almost twenty years between the Hippes and the recurring peasant militias. These militias requested aid from Sparta, another powerful city-state, which deposed the Hippes and enforced a few laws governing Athens, which included freedom from slavery for all Athenian citizens (while slavery was still legal). The Athenians went on to build a powerful army and eventually aid the Ionians in revolt against the Persians.

Early Sparta[edit]

Painting of Alexander the Great.

Sparta was one of the most militarily powerful city-states in Greece. While Sparta had existed for a considerable time prior, Spartan history really begins with Lykurgos. Lykurgos was a Spartan aristocrat who enacted a number of reforms to spartan society which brought it to its recognizable form. Some of Lykurgos' reforms included a prohibition on any currency other than iron, a requirement that all men eat all meals in public mess halls, and that all ceilings be finished with an axe rather than carved. The Spartans proceeded to attack their neighbors to acquire helots (slaves) to farm the land while they concentrated on military matters. They later joined the Athenians in their war against the Persians.

Triumphs and contributions[edit]

Even though the Greek civilization was not the first to develop many studies of the arts and sciences, they were among the first "western" people to do so, and set up lasting techniques and methods which would be used as a basis until the Renaissance. Their architecture, along with the Romans, have inspired many architects and engineers. One kind of example is the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena.

Beginning of the End[edit]

The Greek civilization with its independent city states such as Athens, Thebes, Sparta and its loose confederations were no match, however, against the military stratagems of Philip of Macedon or his son Alexander. They were a forerunner of the rising power of Rome, which under its generals would eventually come to conquer Greece. But if Greece were conquered, the Romans would adapt the Greek culture, keeping it alive.